Salt Lake City Public Library Proposes 24/7 Operations

When the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) was chosen as Gale/LJ Library of the Year in 2006, then-director Nancy Tessman asserted that “the building reflects the idea of an open mind.” SLCPL’s newest proposal—to keep its main branch open 24 hours a day, seven days a week—will put that concept to the test.
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Salt Lake City Library by CGP Grey

When the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) was chosen as Gale/LJ Library of the Year in 2006, then-director Nancy Tessman asserted that “the building reflects the idea of an open mind.” SLCPL’s newest proposal—to keep its main branch open 24 hours a day, seven days a week—will put that concept to the test. While many academic libraries stay open around the clock at exam time (and more than 30 in the U.S. stay open full-time throughout the school year), currently there are no U.S. public libraries that remain in operation 24 hours a day. If SLCPL executive director John Spears is successful in gaining approval from the library board of directors and Salt Lake City Council, the SLCPL downtown branch would keep its doors continuously open to the public on a pilot basis for two years. (Currently hours at the main library are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.) The extended hours, including staffing, security, and programming, would cost approximately $650,000 per year—all of which would be privately funded. The idea first took shape when Spears was approached by a group of community advocates, including Jason Mathis, executive director of the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit business and trade association; philanthropist Bruce Bastian, cofounder of WordPerfect software; and Bill Evans, former director of government relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). They expressed concern about the city’s homeless teenage population, and wondered whether it would be possible for the downtown branch to provide space for them at night. While unwilling to change library policy for one interest group, Spears told LJ, he realized that this posed a potential opportunity to serve a much greater part of the community. He proposed that the concept be expanded to keeping the branch open around the clock for everyone. The community group was enthusiastic, as was the library board when Spears suggested conducting a formal assessment for the project. “Like so many wonderful community initiatives,” Spears told LJ, “it started off as the kernel of an idea to positively affect one group and grew into something that could positively affect the entire community.”

24/7 LOGISTICS

As the largest city in Utah, home to the majority of the state’s cultural institutions and the center of operations of LDS, Salt Lake City is different from anywhere he’s lived, said Spears. “For a city this size [191,000 people], it is amazingly diverse. We have one neighborhood where 80 languages are spoken.” Andrew Shaw, SLCPL’s communications manager and a ten-year resident, added, “Our community is really supportive of the arts, and at the same time people complain about how it seems to shut down early…. There’s more of an interest in having more nightlife, more of a 24-hour city.” Just as SLCPL’s individual branches serve particular geographic areas, Spears explained to LJ that he sees the overnight program as serving a “temporal designation” of the community, with a unique clientele, and plans to structure services and programs around its needs. “It is our intent to provide full service for everyone,” he said, which would include such offerings as  late-night movie screenings (SLCPL already partners with the Salt Lake Film Society and the Utah Film Center), computer classes, book discussion groups, and possibly a program in conjunction with Salt Lake Community College to offer GED classes. Spears envisions the extended hours serving not only those with nowhere else to go, but second- and third-shift workers, nontraditional students, night owls, and local university students—the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah closes at 1 a.m. Although he had initially thought about shutting the doors between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., he realized this would exclude people who wanted to stop by before going to work. “We see this as an opportunity to eliminate one of the final barriers that exists for a lot of the community,” Spears told LJ, “and that’s time constraints. There are a lot of people who don’t operate from 9 to 9 during the day, and this is an opportunity to expose them to everything that a public library can do in their lives.” Of the branch’s six floors, the two lower levels hold the most popular parts of its collection: fiction, audiovisual materials, periodicals, teen materials, graphic novels, the library’s extensive zine collection, the main technology center, new items, circulation, and reference. Only these two floors would remain in use during the extended hours, although Spears is considering opening the 300-seat auditorium for movie screenings, and only one building exit would be used. Runners would be on call to retrieve materials that patrons might request from other floors, providing full access to the branch’s entire collection. A dedicated nighttime staff would be hired on a grant-funded basis for the two years of the pilot program, including a full complement of roles: branch manager, librarians, associates, and aides. Much as the staff at a particular branch becomes familiar with frequent visitors, Spears envisions the regular overnight staff getting to know the night patrons. The branch currently has two to three security officers on site at all times. During overnight hours the same size security detail would be retained, serving the two floors in operation. Volunteers of America (VoA), a nonprofit social services organization, would also work with the night staff as needed. VoA currently has three full-time case workers based in the main library during daytime hours. This library engagement team, which has been in place for more than two years, works with homeless and at-risk community members to help them get housing and IDs, connect with city and state social service agencies, and apply for jobs. They are experienced with de-escalation, and have done 40 hours of training with library staff in the past year to help them cope with the homeless, mentally ill, and abusive patrons.

WINNING OVER THE COMMUNITY

Spears presented the idea to the Salt Lake City Council in November, and the response was mainly positive. Salt Lake City Council Vice Chair Luke Garrott, a strong supporter of the program, told LJ that “In our downtown planning documents, we talk about downtown having a 24/7 culture…. That’s a good principle of urban policy, going back to Jane Jacobs: security is served by eyes on the street at all hours.” Community members, on the other hand, have expressed some misgivings about the project. The program’s initial portrayal in the media focused on its original incentive, the potential for the library as an overnight refuge for homeless youth, Spears told LJ, which engendered a degree of mistrust among the public. However, as he told the Salt Lake Tribune, “All the regulations that apply to the library during the day are also on at night. We won’t allow people to sleep or camp out.” The ultimate goals for the extended hours include the entire Salt Lake City community, and Spears believes that once members fully understand the project’s benefits they will support it. “Security has come up,” he said. “There’s no question about that. Like many urban libraries, we have issues with security. However, we have a great relationship with the Salt Lake City police department, and in the past year we’ve actually seen the number of incidents in the library go down. There has been a steady decline in drug use and public intoxication on library grounds over the past year, and Spears told LJ, “that’s the message we want to take to the public, that this library has a proven track record in dealing with these issues.” Garrott understands the public’s concern—“They think there’s a connection that where the homeless go, drug dealers will follow”—but expressed strong confidence in SLCPL’s ability to address those fears and to handle security issues in and around the library. SLCPL is currently compiling a needs assessment study, working with consultant Christine Richman of GSBS Richman Consulting and a number of community partners, including the University of Utah, the Salt Lake City government, and VoA. Spears is working to assess the program’s potential audience; he also wants to have a “robust period for public comment, where we could interact with the public directly” to hear the community’s perceptions and feelings. In addition, SLCPL has set up a FAQ page to address people’s concerns about 24/7 library service. The library board has been supportive of exploring the idea, Spears said, and he wants to make sure they have a real understanding of what it involves for the library: “Everything from wear and tear on the building to staffing requirements to public perception of the library, who’s going to be utilizing this, what it will mean for library services,” as well as its sustainability beyond the two year pilot. Once the pilot period is up, the program’s success will be assessed by standard metrics—circulation, program attendance, gate counts, and computer use.

MOVING CAUTIOUSLY

The 24-hour program will not be relying on taxpayer or government money. The initial group that approached SLCPL is in the process of lining up private and corporate donations, and has received verbal commitments for some $300,000 as of press time. While Spears feels that not having to rely on public funding puts SLCPL in a good position, Garrott believes that people may see the private money as coming with an agenda attached. Either way, city council must first pass a budget amendment in order for the donated money to become part of the library’s funding. A vote was originally scheduled for December 9, but Spears requested that city council postpone the vote until January 2015. This was due at least in part, Shaw told LJ, to a need for further community conversation and clarification of the process. While a yes vote would simply amend the library budget in order to incorporate potential funds, the project’s advocates felt that people perceived a possible budget approval as a go-ahead for the entire project. “They seemed to be seeing it as a no or a go kind of vote,” Shaw explained. In fact, the project can only move forward after the library board approves the needs assessment and city council passes the budget amendment—at which point, the donations would still have to be finalized. If the project is approved, the library will need to need to draw up an official budget for hiring and training staff, as well as modifications to the building so that access to unused areas could be closed off during overnight hours. Shaw feels that both city council and the library board are receptive to the plan, and that with ongoing communication, all Salt Lake City’s downtown residents can be accommodated. “It seems to me that everybody’s been very aware of the concerns in the community and some of the possible roadblocks,” he told LJ, “and we’re all looking at ways to help alleviate those.” Library leadership met in December with the chief of police and the homeowners’ association for the buildings across the street from the library. Public input is also expected via email and there will probably be a strong community presence at the December 22 library board meeting, when preliminary data from the needs assessment will be presented. “We want to move forward in a measured way,” Spears told LJ. “We want to make sure we have everything lined up for this to be a success…. We want to have the community behind us, we want to have as good an understanding as you can have before you do something like this of what it’s going to entail…. So while we want to move forward quickly, we also want to move forward intelligently.”
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JoAnna Johannesen

I think this is a great idea. I would use it early mornings, and later in evenings after 9. I am a writer and artist. I like to find quiet places to use computer, research, and for perfecting my drawing skills. This would provide me with a great resource and outlet to work on my book that is in the outline stages. I have a daughter-in-law who is homeless. She is on a list for housing and has a 2 year old girl, I believe she could be helped as well. Hopefully with assistance in employment to supplement her Social Security check. She has a mental illness that possible employers see as risky to hire her. She is a responsible lady and hard worker. Possibly she would utilize the counseling workers there. I surely hope and pray that this pilot 2 year plan in approved. Thank you.

Posted : Apr 21, 2015 10:05


estella

If the Alliance group knows there are teenage homeless, it should have been their responsibility to promptly advise the public welfare to have those homes teens into a foster care homes asap!!!

Posted : Apr 20, 2015 10:02


D. Dean Anesi

I live five blocks from the downtown library and love the facility. I treasure everything about our city library. It is for this reason and a concern that it will be abused and treated like everything else that is 24hr that I am opposed to such a transition. Please do not make this a 24 hr library. Thank you for your time.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 09:18


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